The Best Hiking Packs for Day Trips

Adrienne Donica
Photo credit: Staff

From Popular Mechanics

The most important gear for day hikes is the boots on your feet, but once you’ve laced up, it’s nice to have a place to stash your water, trail snacks, and maybe even a hammock. (Plus, it’s always a good idea to carry a first aid kit for emergencies.) Daypacks come in a variety of sizes and price points. They can be simple or full of features. We’ve reviewed a wide swath of what’s available, so our list of the best hiking daypacks has an option for every type of adventure.

Read quick reviews of five great options below, then keep scrolling to find buying advice and in-depth evaluations of these and other top-performing packs.

Although we always suggest checking local regulations before you head out, this is even more important in the face of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Many National Parks are currently closed, even for day use, and the agencies in charge of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails are encouraging hikers to avoid these popular routes. In many places, hiking remains a safe and acceptable outdoor activity, but it’s a good idea to choose less traveled paths, pick a time when you won’t encounter a lot of other people, and bring a mask.

When To Choose a Frameless Design

Many hiking packs meant for daily use have a lightweight frameless construction. That industry lingo can be a bit misleading because most packs still have some built-in support, usually in the form of a foam back panel (also called a framesheet). This panel gives the bag shape, helps distribute the load, and protects the wearer from getting jabbed by any gear inside the pack. By design, frameless packs rest next to the body, which can lead to a sweaty situation especially on warm days. To improve back ventilation, companies reduce the contact surface by designing foam panels with raised portions or cutouts.

Internal frame packs are built for carrying heavier loads and designed to distribute weight across the body. This construction is ideal for backpacking trips, but there are some smaller day hiking models made with curved metal rods installed along the perimeter of the pack’s back. Like on frameless designs, the back panel can be made of foam, or it can be a piece of mesh fabric that’s stretched across the rods. This tensioned design offers good ventilation because there is space between the pack and the mesh panel.

For most day hikers, a frameless pack is a fine choice. Because it uses less material than an internal frame pack, it is lighter and generally cheaper. However, if you are the designated pack mule for your crew or just tend to bring a lot on the trail, you will probably be more comfortable using a small internal frame pack.

Other Considerations

Another key to finding a comfortable pack is to choose one that fits. Pack fit is largely determined by torso length (measured from your bony C7 vertebra at the base of your neck to your iliac crest at the top of your hip bones), but it can also include the overall shape of the bag. Unfortunately, most daypacks are only available in one torso size, but a select few have multiple options. Even if you can’t select a torso length, choosing a men’s or women’s specific size can help. Women’s packs are shorter and generally narrower to accommodate smaller female torsos. The shoulder straps on these packs are also more curved and sit closer together.

You should also decide how much space you’ll need. Choose a bag under 15 liters if you are carrying food and water for yourself, along with a first aid kit and your personal effects. But if you need to bring rain gear or extra layers for high altitude hiking, opt for a 20- to 25-liter pack. This larger size is also ideal if you regularly haul binoculars or a DSLR camera, will be carrying gear and food for others, or want room to stash a book, hammock or packable blanket for a mid-hike picnic. The good news is that companies offer the same pack in multiple capacities, so once you find a construction and feature set you like, it’s easy to get the space you need.

Lastly, don’t forget to evaluate the features of a pack. Exterior gear loops for attaching bulky gear and hydration sleeves for storing a water reservoir are fairly standard. The addition of a hip belt will help stabilize the pack against your body and transfer some of the load to your legs. This allows for more efficient hiking and reduces the strain on your shoulders and upper back. And if you live in the Pacific Northwest or don’t let rain showers keep you from getting your miles in, a waterproof pack or one that comes with a rain cover will protect your valuables.

How We Evaluated

To find the best daypacks, we prioritized frameless designs and evaluated the capacity, weight, construction, feature set, and cost of 15 models. We researched the market, talked with product managers, and relied on our own expertise and testing experience. For models we were able to use, we hiked for a minimum of 15 miles while wearing them, sometimes filling them to the brim and other times carrying no more than a couple pounds. Reviews from customers and expert sites, including OutdoorGearLab and Switchback Travel, also helped us cull the list to the very best. These are the 11 models that made the cut.









—LIGHTWEIGHT PACK—

REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack










Capacity: 22 liters | Weight: 13 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: No

At first blush, the Flash seems to be a relatively simple pack with mesh water bottle holders and fewer pockets than some. But look closer and you’ll find the lightweight, affordable pack still has plenty of features. From the factory floor, it weighs in at under 1 pound, but the non-padded hip belt, sternum strap, and foam back panel are removable if you want to shave ounces (or need a padded seat along the trail). Still, there’s light padding on the shoulder straps and gear loops in addition to the three pockets. The main compartment has a drawstring closure with a quick-release tab system so you don’t have to mess with the traditional button mechanism. Or for more frequently needed, smaller items, use the two zipper pockets on the lid and front of the pack. Though nearly all the packs on this list have a hydration sleeve, the Flash is the only one that has three ports for the sipping tube. From the main middle hole, snake the tube underneath the shoulder strap padding, or pull it through either port found over the shoulders if you prefer not to have the tubing as close to your neck. All this makes the Flash a capable sidekick for all but the most strenuous hikes.










—INTERNAL FRAME PACK—

Deuter Speed Lite 24










Capacity: 24 liters | Weight: 1 lb. 11.2 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: Yes

Deuter injects plenty of support and cushion into the Speed Lite while managing to make it several ounces lighter than most internal frame packs of this size. To shed weight, the company opts for a Derlin plastic frame instead of the more common spring steel or aluminum. The padded hip belt and U-shaped perimeter frame place most of the load on your hips so your legs can do the heavy lifting, not your shoulders. Plus, the adjustable load lifter straps on the thickly padded shoulder straps help ensure the ventilated foam back panel rests against your body. There’s a sunglasses holder on one shoulder strap, and the sternum strap is installed on sliders so you can move it easily to the appropriate height. The large hydration sleeve accommodates a reservoir up to 3 liters. And at 24 liters, the Speed Lite is spacious enough for an ambitious all-day hike or shorter jaunts when you want to carry more than just the essentials.

Shop Men’s | Shop Women’s










—HYDRATION PACK—

CamelBak Arête 18










Capacity: 18 liters | Weight: 10.6 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: No

It’s easy to get dehydrated while hiking simply because you might not feel thirsty. That’s why we love to carry a water reservoir, which makes it easy to sip on the move. The Arête comes with a 1.5-liter CamelBak reservoir and enough additional space to fit the rest of your gear. Like on the Flash, the Arête’s hydration port is smartly positioned over the shoulder. There are two zippered pockets: one inside the main compartment and one on the side of the bag’s exterior, opposite a mesh water bottle pouch. Unfortunately, there isn’t a hip belt, but it’s for a good reason. The Arête is reversible and can be used as a reservoir insulation sleeve that fits into a larger pack, providing you with cold water even in the backcountry.










—BEST VALUE—

Osprey Daylite Plus

$65.00










Capacity: 20 liters | Weight: 1 lb. | Sex-Specific Fit: No

This popular daypack is ready for outings near and far. The breathable back panel and cushioned shoulder straps keep you comfortable, and four pockets, including the front shove-it pocket, provide space for all your gear. The adjustable sternum strap features a safety whistle for emergencies. There’s also plenty of room for carrying water between the two mesh side pockets and the padded hydration sleeve. Off the trail, this compartment transforms into a safe place to store tech devices smaller than 14 inches. The non-padded hip belt is removable for casual use or if you are clipping the Daylite Plus to one of Osprey’s larger backpacking and travel packs. Its versatility, feature set, and reasonable price make this pack hard to beat.










—WATERPROOF—

Matador Freerain24 2.0 Packable Backpack










Capacity: 24 liters | Weight: 6.5 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: No

We’ve been caught in several spring showers with the Freerain in tow, and we take heart knowing our goods will stay dry in this cache. The durable Cordura ripstop nylon exterior has a siliconized waterproof coating that effectively beads and sheds condensation, and the seam-sealed construction adds further protection. Although the zipper on the front pocket is only water-resistant, we haven’t found any moisture inside. We also like the pack’s ultralight, packable design. It’s a mere 6.5 ounces and stuffs into a 5-by-3-inch sack, which makes it easy to travel with and a ready addition to a backpacking trip when you anticipate a day hike or two. That convenience comes with some sacrifice. There’s no hip belt and no padding anywhere on this pack, which meant we had to carefully add in gear to avoid our sunscreen from poking us in the spleen repeatedly. The mesh shoulder straps were very breathable and didn’t dig in excessively, but they did leave impressions after longer hikes when we maxed out this 24-liter pack’s capacity. And one final note about fit: Men with broader chests and most women might find the sternum strap a bit short.










—BEST FEATURES—

REI Co-op Trail 25 Pack

$79.95










Capacity: 25 liters | Weight: 2 lbs. | Sex-Specific Fit: Yes

At 25 liters, the Trail is the largest daypack on this list and one of the most fully featured. Its ample size includes a hydration sleeve large enough to fit a 3-liter reservoir, which is double the size that many packs can fit, and the hydration port sits near the right shoulder instead of at the base of the neck. The Trail boasts six pockets, including a small front compartment with a soft lining for holding your sunglasses or phone. Another pocket is dedicated to storing the included raincover, a nice bonus should the weather turn. For bulkier items, there are two sections of daisy chain loops on the front and two sets of metal fobs designed specifically for holding trekking poles. The hip belt isn’t padded and doesn’t have pockets, but if you need near-immediate access to small gear, you can attach REI’s Trail 2 waistpack. Plush cushioning on the back panel and shoulder straps adds comfort, and the sternum strap is easily adjustable. And the eco-conscious will appreciate that the Trail is made entirely with recycled nylon that’s burly enough to stand up to abuse.

Shop Men’s | Shop Women’s










—CUSTOMIZABLE FIT—

Osprey Talon 22










Capacity: 22 liters | Weight: 1 lb. 12.6 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: Yes

Osprey made its name designing great-fitting packs, and the Talon and its women’s-equivalent, the Tempest 20, are no exception. Both are offered in two sizes based on torso length, giving you a good shot at finding the right fit. The breathable back panel seamlessly connects to the padded hip belt, reducing the chance of discomfort and chafing while on the trail. The pack also has lots of storage. There’s a dedicated hydration sleeve, shove-it front pocket ideal for storing an extra layer or rain jacket, and a mesh pouch on the left shoulder strap. The addition of the helmet storage fob at the front makes the Talon suitable for your gravel or mountain biking excursions, too. Customization like this will cost you, but it’s a worthwhile investment for frequent hikers looking for a pack that fits like a glove.

Shop Men’s | Shop Women’s










—FOR ALL-DAY ADVENTURES—

Gregory Juno 24










Capacity: 24 liters | Weight: 1 lb. 14.9 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: Yes

Updated for 2020, the Juno and men’s Citro packs are a ready companion for full days in the field. The 24-liter pack is built on an aluminum perimeter frame to support heavier loads and has cushioning on the shoulder straps, hip belt, and at the lower back to reduce strain. The tensioned mesh back panel offers superior ventilation to keep you comfortable and dry in the heat. The main compartment includes a small security pocket and space for a 3-liter reservoir, an ideal size for longer day trips. (If you don’t already have a reservoir, consider the hydration model that comes with Gregory’s updated 3D Hydro reservoir.) Zippered pockets on the hip belts fit trail snacks and other necessities, and the buckle on the sternum strap has a safety whistle.

Shop Women’s | Shop Men’s










—FOR TRAILSIDE PHOTOGRAPHERS—

Mammut Lithium Speed 20 L










Capacity: 20 liters | Weight: 1 lb. 4.8 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: No

The Lithium Speed is a svelte daypack that comes with a handy feature if you frequently stop to snap photos on the trail. The right shoulder strap features a stretchy mesh pouch that fits a camera phone and zips away when not in use. This prevents you from having to remove the pack and rummage around anytime you encounter a Kodak moment. Of course, the 20-liter pack has room for an actual camera, too. Place it in the main compartment, which also features a hydration sleeve. The well-positioned port exits the pack over the shoulder. There are also two exterior zippered pockets—on the front and at the top—along with one hip belt pocket. Padding on the back panel and throughout the harness provide plenty of cushion, and compression straps keep the pack’s slim form in check when you don’t have much to carry.










—MINIMALIST—

Kavu Rope Sling

$54.95










Capacity: 10 liters | Weight: 8 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: No

If you keep your trail kit to a minimum, this 10-liter satchel is all you need, and what little gear you take with you can be neatly organized among the four pockets (though the velcro phone pocket is too narrow for today’s smartphones). We still had room to spare after loading it with two 32-ounce water bottles, our keys, phone, and a collapsible water bowl for our hiking pup. But it’s actually better not to fill it to the brim if you don’t want to wake up sore the next day. Because of the satchel’s angle, it only hung comfortably on our right shoulder. The wide rope strap didn’t dig in, but we felt a little strain after several miles. Luckily, this was limited to the shoulder only, thanks to the light padding in the back panel. Kavu is known for outfitting the sling’s polyester exterior with bold, bright patterns that make a statement on the trail, but for a more muted design, turn to the solid colors of the cotton canvas model.










—VERSATILE—

Gregory Nano 16

$39.95










Capacity: 16 liters | Weight: 12.8 oz. | Sex-Specific Fit: No

The Nano’s affordable price tag stands out, but that’s not the only reason it’s worth considering. It toes the line between a hiking pack and a commuter bag, making it a good option for casual hikers. When you’re not on the trail, its slim design is ideal for trips to the gym or office. The internal hydration sleeve (which isn’t padded) can also fit a tablet, and the non-padded hip belt is removable for when you’re walking around in the city. Opening and closing the drawstring main compartment is fast with the addition of the Quick-Pull mechanism, and the zippered top pocket and mesh side pouches leave storage space for more immediate needs, like your phone or sunglasses. And for a pack at this price, the slotted foam back panel, which ventilates some built-up heat, is a luxurious touch.

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